At the age of just 21, defender Sam Byram has already represented his boyhood club Leeds United for almost a decade as he prepares for his fourth senior season at Elland Road this summer.
The highly rated right-back was crowned the Player, Young Player, Players Player and Supporters’ Player of the Year following his remarkable breakthrough 2012-13 campaign with the Whites, scoring four goals in 54 appearances in all competitions.
Byram is just one of a number of young English talents graduating from the club’s youth academy, including rising stars Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor. But having resisted attractive offers from Premier League clubs in the past, Byram is solely focused on helping Leeds reach the Promised Land.
After a topsy-turvy and controversial 2014-15 campaign under Italian owner Massimo Cellino, where the Whites finished 15th in the Championship, Uwe Rosler is at the helm this season at Elland Road as he bids to lift Leeds back into the English top flight for the first time since 2004.
Byram talked to Shoot EXCLUSIVELY about his time at Elland Road, Leeds’ goal for the forthcoming campaign and his desire to represent England on the international stage.
Leeds have set-up a series of glamorous pre-season ties this summer. How vital is a positive pre-season ahead of the forthcoming season?
“I think for any footballer it is important to get a good run of form in pre-season. It is the base for the season. Fitness is a massive part of it. You have to build up your base fitness. I think it helps massively towards the main season. I have missed a pre-season in the past and you are playing catch up after that. So to get a strong pre-season in is vital.”
You start your 2015-16 Championship campaign at home to recently relegated Burnley. How important would an opening win against the Clarets be for the Whites this season?
“The first game of the season is massive. Especially at Leeds and Elland Road, there is always 30,000+ people there for the first game. So to get a win and show the fans what we are going to be pushing towards the end of the season, there will be a lot of pressure on that game.”
Uwe Rosler is at the helm this campaign. What impression has he made on you so far?
“I didn’t know much about him as a manager before he came in, but I have been very impressed. His man management skills, especially with the young players, he is always pulling you to one side for what you have done well and what you can improve on. I think for any young player, you want to learn and make yourself the best player you can. To have him looking over us and guiding us, he has been very good so far.”
With this year’s additions of relegated trio Burnley, Queens Park Rangers and Hull City the league looks tough. How confident are you that Leeds can challenge for promotion?
“Very confident. We have made two or three really good signings so far and I think I have heard the manager say he is still after one or two more. I think our squad is looking strong at the minute. We haven’t had the results in pre-season, but we have been playing some good football in training and stuff. There is a real togetherness in the squad this season, so I am confident we are going to do well.”
What’s your personal goal for the coming campaign?
“Just to play as many games as I can. Stay injury free, I think that is a major pointer so that I can keep on improving throughout the season.”
You have been at Leeds United since you were just 12-years-old, what is it you love so much about this club?
“I think growing up around the area and all my friends and brother being Leeds fans, the club has done so much for me from a young age and brought me through. They have given me the chance to play for the team I support. They have been brilliant towards me. As a whole, it is just a really special club to me.”
After signing your first professional contract back in May 2012, you concluded an outstanding 2012-13 campaign by picking up the Player, Young Player, Players Player and Supporters Player of the Year awards. Could you have wished for a better debut season?
“No, I think it was just one of those years that everything seemed to go right. We had some really good teams drawn out of the cup games and we went on some good runs in them. It just seemed like one of those where everything fell into place and went really well.”
The club have started to nurture a handful of young players through their academy, including the likes of Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor. How crucial is it that Leeds keep hold of their future stars this summer?
“I think it is crucial that we keep hold of our young players. Not just because they came through the academy, but because they are some of our best players. So I think keeping us altogether and keeping us improving as a team is vital.”
Under former first-team coach, now academy boss, Neil Redfearn; the 50-year-old called you a “tremendous young talent” and compared your uprising to that of Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale. How influential has Redfearn been throughout the early stages of your career?
“Yeah, obviously he has been my coach since the Under-18s, so he brought me through my apprenticeship. Obviously to hear him say something like that is nice coming from him. Not sure I would agree personally, obviously Gareth Bale is doing unbelievably well at one of the best teams in the world. But Redders [Redfearn] has done a lot for me in football and I owe him a lot of credit.”
Despite your impressive performances at club level, you haven’t won an international cap after being forced to withdraw from the England squad at the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup due to injury. Now 21, are you still hopeful of representing your country?
“Definitely. Yeah, I don’t think it is too late. I’m still in the age gap to be able to play for the Under-21s. Hopefully if I keep my head down and keep working hard, that’s my ultimate goal, to play for the England first team. Until I’m too old and can’t do it, I’ll keep working to try and make that possible.”